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Why viewers love ''The West Wing''

The show portrays what a good president should be

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Turns out the protracted election crisis has yielded at least one decisive result: The West Wing has become critical to national security. Just ask Janel Moloney, better known to the faithful as White House aide Donna Moss. ”Everything is so crazy, people need a dose of something optimistic and stable,” says the actress. ”Every Wednesday night, they can pretend they have a real President.” That seems to have been the thinking behind NBC’s election-week promo for the wildly popular presidential drama, now in its sophomore season: ”After the ballots are counted, and the results have been announced, watch the critically acclaimed show that has the one President we all agree on.”

It was a stroke of marketing genius — even more so in retrospect — and also faintly absurd. After all, Martin Sheen’s President Josiah Bartlet, a squeaky-clean, just-left-of-center Democrat who can make even political exigency look heroic, is the sort of politician the average American wouldn’t expect to see outside of a cathode-ray tube. On the other hand, check out those Emmy ballots — no chad-parsing there. While you’re at it, tally up those ratings — nearly 20 million viewers per week at last count, and yes, that’s including Florida. Now you tell us: Who has the stronger mandate, reality or fiction?

”It’s a weird thing, being on a politically themed show,” says Bradley Whitford, who plays Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman. ”You’re given a certain amount of credibility that you don’t deserve. But when you have the ability to do that, do you say, ‘Well, I have to shut up, just because I’m on a TV show’?” For most cast members, the answer is an emphatic ”No.” Sheen and Whitford, along with several of their castmates, worked tirelessly for the Gore campaign.

But partisanship is hardly the source of the show’s success; quite the opposite, in fact. Rob Lowe locates Wing‘s aisle-crossing appeal in its radiant civic passion, as embodied by creator Aaron Sorkin’s crisp, complex, and indomitably positive scripts, which, refreshingly, don’t respond to opinion polls: ”He’s incapable of writing to an agenda, be it in network notes, or what to do for better ratings, or ‘gee, wouldn’t it be great if we found out that Sam (Seaborn, the deputy communications director played by Lowe) had a blind sister!”’

Sorkin corroborates this, adding that he doesn’t see America’s political vicissitudes affecting the show’s watchability one way or the other. ”We’re just staying in our parallel universe,” he sighs, sounding mightily relieved, ”where Bartlet isn’t up for reelection for another two years.” By then, of course, we’ll know who our real President is. Hopefully. And if not, well, there’s always Wednesday night.